Fistfights, kicks and the Ukrainian elections

Damiano Benzoni

From Euro 2012 to the elections: the big event for Ukraine, after the Spaniards won their Kiev final against Italy, has become the parliamentary elections scheduled for October 28th. It will be a crucial election for the Verchovna Rada, the Ukrainian parliament, and it will be played between the danger for electoral fraud and the tug of war played by the West and Russia on the former Soviet republic. According to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, at a conference in Jalta last week both parts put Ukraine back up against the wall. On one hand, the EU and the US are asking for a clear acceleration of the stagnating democratic progress of the country and for a solution to the situation of former prime minister Julija Tymošenko, whose imprisonment is seen as a move masterminded by president Viktor Janukovyč to sideline a dangerous political opponent. On the other hand Moscow, leveraging on the high energy costs Ukraine has to face, is trying to force Kiev into joining the Eurasiatic Union.

During Euro 2012 politics had overtaken the sporting stage, as we had reported. The road to the European Championship was marred by protests and accusations against the criminosity of the Ukrainian police, against the presence in the country of agencies for sex tourism and sexual expoitment and against alleged policies of systematic killing of rabid dogs. More than all that, Euro 2012 was preceded by the Dnipropetrovs’k blasts in which 29 were harmed and by the threats of international boycott for the contested process against Julija Tymošenko.

“Elections aren’t a sport, they are the will of the citizens, the nation, as the highest source of power”, Janukovyč stated last Wednesday. Ironically, this time sport is invading the pitch of politics. The two most known Ukrainian sport personalities, footballer Andrij Ševčenko and boxer Vitalij Klyčko, are both involved in parties opposing the Partija Rehioniv, Janukovyč’s Party of Regions. It doesn’t come as a surprise in a country where sport had been politically framed by the totalitarian Soviet regime and where the coach of the national team, the legendary Oleh Blochin, has been an MP. Blochin, who told the Ukrainian site Dei’/Day he had never withdrawn his subscription to the Communist Party after the collapse of the Soviet Union, was elected for the social-democrat party Hromada – which also included Julija Tymošenko – in 1998. The party fell apart in 2000 after its leader Pavlo Lazarenko – a former prime minister accused with money laundering and embezzlement – fled the country. Such events would prompt Julija Tymošenko to found her own party, Bat’kivščyna (“Fatherland”). Blochin was elected for a new mandate in 2002 for the SDPU(O) party, led by Hryhorij Surkis – former owner and president of Dinamo Kiev and now president of the Ukrainian FA and vice-president of the national Olympic committee.

Andrij Ševčenko’s decision has an interesting parallel in the story of another footballer who shared a big part of his career with the Ukrainian, Georgian defender K’akhaber K’aladze. The paths of the two players crossed in 1998, when K’aladze joined colonel Valerij Lobanovs’kyj’s Dinamo Kiev, where Ševčenko played. The two players got together once again in 2001 at AC Milan, where they would become the first two post-Soviet players to win a Champions League. At the end of the last season K’aladze announced his retirement from football and his involvement in favour of Kartuli Otsneba (AKA Georgian Dream), a Georgian party opposing president Mikheil Saak’ashvili and led by oligarch Bidzina Ivanishvili.

After leading the Ukrainian national team in Euro 2012 and scoring a brace of goals in their 2-1 win against Sweden, the 36-year-old Andrij Ševčenko announced his retirement from football and his intention of getting involved in politics with Natalija Korolevs’ka’s party Ukraїna – Vpered! (”Ukraine – Forward! ”). Korolevs’ka has a controversial political history: starting as a Janukovyč supporter at local level, she swapped teams in 2005, joining Bat’kivščyna and becoming a spokesperson at the congress of the European People’s Party after the arrest of Tymošenko. She became a leader of the social-democrat party USDP, a part of Blok Juliї Tymošenko, but fell from grace in March 2012, when she was expelled from the coalition for a controversial vote with the accusation of “cooperation with the presidential administration”. A week later her party USDP changed its name to Partiju Nataliї Korolevs’koї Ukraїna – Vpered!, “Party of Natalija Korolevs’ka Ukraine – Forward!”. In an interview with the Independent, Ševčenko expressed his view Tymošenko should be freed and excluded any possibility of cooperation with Janukovyč. Apart from that his political programme – as well as that of his party – has remained so far very vague.

Vitalij Klyčko’s involvement in politics has a longer story than Ševčenko descent onto the field. The boxer, a WBC heavyweight champion and the holder of the second best knockout to fight ratio after Rocky Marciano, publicly supported Janukovyč’s opponent Viktor Juščenko during the protests in Majdan Nezaležnosti (Kiev’s Independence Square) which are known as the 2004 Orange Revolution. The demonstrations, an indictment against the electoral irregularities which assigned the presidency to Janukovyč, forced a repetition of the consultation, earned victory for Juščenko and would be the springboard to fame for Tymošenko. When a faction of the youth movement Pora! (“It’s time!”) – which had organised the Orange Revolution – decided to become a political party and ally with Partija Reformy i Porjadok (“Party of Reform and Order”), Klyčko became its leader and repeatedly ran, without success, for the post of major of Kiev. After becoming a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe, in 2010 Klyčko founded his own party UDAR, Ukraїns’kyj Demokratyčkyj Al’janc za Reformy Vitalija Klyčka (“Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform of Vitalij Klyčko”). Now running once again for major of the capital, according to the Deutsche Presse-Agentur Klyčko declared in January that “falsification will take place and it is being planned”. Recently, Klyčko himself has been accused, although the reasons are different: British boxer David Haye accused him of hiding behind politics and using his political career in order to avoid meeting him on the ring.

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